But the fact remained that the sometimes enigmatic Wawrinka frequently settled for less than the ceiling of his talent over the course of the 2014 season. At least to a degree, that was understandable. He was adjusting to a different status, trying to meet much larger expectations, and looking to find comfort at a loftier level of the game. Wawrinka needed to figure out who he was and what he wanted. He had to find his bearings in a more complicated world, and that inner struggle was evident in many ways all through 2014.
Yet Wawrinka has commenced 2015 as if he genuinely thinks he belongs among the elite players of his sport. He opened the season by defending his title in Chennai, and then went back to Melbourne hoping to hold onto his crown there. Wawrinka played one of the signature matches of his career when he cut down Kei Nishikori in a straight set quarterfinal, avenging a loss to the charismatic Japanese competitor at the 2014 U.S. Open. In the semifinals, Wawrinka bowed in five sets against Novak Djokovic, but he acquitted himself honorably. The Swiss had answered a growing legion of critics who were beginning to believe he did not have the drive, gumption or credentials to remain a front line player. He had come within one set of returning to the Australian Open final.
On Sunday, Wawrinka captured his second title of the young season at the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament in Rotterdam, eclipsing Tomas Berdych for the ninth time in their last ten clashes (and the sixth time in a row) with a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 final round victory. Wawrinka has now won 14 of 15 matches in 2015, taking two of the three tournaments he has played; his lone loss was that setback against the world No. 1 at the Australian Open. This is not to suggest that the soon to be 30-year-old Swiss is going to sustain the pace he has set so far this year. But Wawrinka is reinforcing the notion that he has no intention of falling out of the worlds top ten. He is also signaling that a return to the top five may not be beyond his reach.
Against Berdych, Wawrinka was slow getting out of the gates, while the 65 man from the Czech Republic had the upper hand early. Berdych was driving the ball off both sides with regal authority. His rhythmic power and precision were a sight to behold; when he is striking the ball with that uncanny accuracy, depth and ball control, very few rivals can stay with him. He utterly controls his fate when his ground game is flowing so freely. He seizes control of rallies and pounds away effortlessly yet ferociously, measuring every shot meticulously, leaving his adversaries dazed, picking them apart systematically.
That is how it was unfolding in the Rotterdam final. Both men held comfortably until the fifth game of the opening set. Berdych had a break point, and seemed ready to convert it when he pulled Wawrinka off the court. But Wawrinka unloaded on his topspin backhand down the line with accelerated pace. Berdych had an open court, yet he was rushed into a mistake by Wawrinkas pace, sending a forehand into the net. Wawrinka held on for 3-2, but only tenuously. Berdych served an ace out wide in the deuce court to hold at 15 for 3-3, and then went back to work in an attempt to break the Swiss.
He did just that in the seventh game. Wawrinka missed four of six first serves, and Berdych directed much of his backcourt traffic to the forehand side of his opponent. Berdych achieved the break, and soon moved to 5-3. Two games later, he served for the set in the tenth game. For the first time in the match, Berdych exposed his apprehension. He had a set point at 40-30, but was passive on the next point and Wawrinka stung him with a searing crosscourt forehand released at an acute angle. Wawrinka advanced to break point, but Berdych displayed some moxie at that crucial moment, releasing a big second serve down the T that Wawrinka could not answer. Berdych garnered a second set point when Wawrinka netted a chipped backhand return, and then the Swiss missed another backhand return off a high bounding second serve kicker. Berdych had briefly wavered, but he secured the set 6-4.
Early in the second set, Berdych was poised to distance himself from a still unsettled Wawrinka. The Swiss was down 0-30 in the opening game, but he took the next four points with some clutch serving and controlled aggression off the forehand. After Berdych held for 1-1, he had Wawrinka down 0-30 again in the third game, yet once more the Swiss came to his own rescue, winning four points in a row, closing out that game with an ace. The second set was soon locked at 3-3, but Wawrinka was finding his range off the ground, serving with finer location, and tightening up his game considerably. He held at 30 in the seventh game, serving a kick serve ace relatively short and wide to the Berdych backhand, clipping the line with that delivery.
With Berdych serving at 3-4, the defending champion began that critical game abysmally. Two straight unforced errors off his normally trustworthy two-handed backhand put Berdych in a 0-30 deficit, and he could not climb out of it. After he got to 15-30, Berdych approached down the line off the backhand, but Wawrinka was undaunted, lacing a forehand passing shot deceptively down the line for a winner. Berdych saved one break point with an ace, but at 30-40 he had too much time to think when Wawrinka blocked a soft return down the middle. Berdych beat himself, netting a routine forehand on perhaps the biggest point of the match. Wawrinka had secured a break at last, and then held at 30 with an inside out forehand winner to seal the set 6-3. It was one set all.
Serving at 30-40 in the first game of the final set, Berdych was terribly unlucky. Wawrinkas return clipped the net cord and fell over for a winner. Berdych never had a chance to track it. Wawrinka held at love for 2-0 despite connecting with only one first serve. Berdych was down 0-30 in the third game but he collected four points in a row to get the hold, coming through with discipline, good strategic serving and penetrating shots off the ground. Wawrinka trailed 15-30 in the fourth game but then released one of his trademark scintillating topspin backhand crosscourt winners. He took the next two points to hold at 30 for 3-1.
To say the least, Berdych was disconcerted by his plight. Serving at 15-40 in the fifth game, Berdych pulled Wawrinka wide in the deuce court with his delivery, and approached up the line off the forehand. But Wawrinka connected with a first rate backhand passing shot down the line on the run, producing a timely and majestic winner, raising his fist in celebration of the insurance break he had just recorded. Wawrinka had reminded us in that instant why his one-handed backhand is surely the best of its kind.
Yet Wawrinka was perhaps too content. He opened the next game indifferently, making an unforced error by pulling a backhand crosscourt wide, then missing a forehand inside-in for another unprovoked mistake. That lapse was somewhat costly. The Swiss was broken at 15 and then Berdych held at love in the seventh game. Now Wawrinka served at 4-3, but with a strikingly improved mindset. He held at 15, provoking three forehand return errors from Berdych with the superb accuracy and unpredictability of his delivery.
Berdych was down match point in the ninth game. He kept his composure, stifling Wawrinka with an unstoppable first serve down the T, holding on after three deuces. That stand forced the Swiss to serve out the match at 5-4, but Wawrinka was well prepared for that task. From 0-15, he never lost another point. Victory went to the Swiss No. 2 by scores of 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. It seems as if Wawrinka is at last finding a knack for succeeding in finals. He has won five in a row to raise his career record up to 9-9 in title round matches. That is the sign of a man who has grown more accustomed to handling the harsh light of pressure. Wawrinkas court presence is a growing virtue.
Wawrinka is now stationed at No. 7 in the world, moving one notch above Berdych. The most encouraging thing for Wawrinka is that he has learned lately to win a lot more tough matches when he is not necessarily at the top of his game. He has improved markedly as a match player, navigating his way through strenuous, pendulum swinging contests, recovering his emotional balance often after enduring wobbly stretches of ineptitude. Wawrinka halted Milos Raonic 7-6 (3), 7-6 (7) in the Rotterdam semifinals as neither man was broken in the entire contest. Wawrinka fended off all six break points against him in that duel, and more importantly saved two set points in the second set tie-break when he was down 6-4. Raonic slightly outplayed him, but Wawrinka was the better big point player, and the superior man in the tightest corners of the contest. Wawrinka is 4-0 in his career head to head series with Raonic, and the Swiss has prevailed in all five tie-breaks he has contested against the Canadian.
In his come from behind win over Berdych, Wawrinka did not get his game on track for quite a while, but he waited for his openings, raised his game significantly, and came away in the end with a triumph that was hard earned and patiently produced. Berdych is a more brittle competitor than Wawrinka. He has finished every one of the past five years among the top 7 in the world, which is a testament to the unfailingly high standards he has set for a long while. And yet, Berdych is frequently his own worst enemy. He loses faith in himself at the worst possible times, letting too many insecurities drag him needlessly into the land of defeat; sometimes, he almost talks himself into losses. Berdych has now been beaten in two finals at the start of this year. His career record in finals is a revealing 10-16. Meanwhile, Berdych was also beaten in the semifinals of the Australian Open by Andy Murray. Those are first rate results, but they must be disappointing for a man who has long been capable of winning not only more ATP World Tour titles, but also one of the majors. Perhaps Berdych will make amends later this year and finally do himself justice, but he seems to invent ways to lose important matches rather than manufacturing openings that can lead him to victories.
As for Stan Wawrinka, he is planting the seeds for a very healthy 2015 season. He is an increasingly staunch and resilient competitor, a fellow who is demanding everything he has from himself, and a player who has a clear sense of what he is doing, why he is gaining ground and where he wants to go. He finally seems to understand how good he is and how great he could be. The odds are clearly against Wawrinka winning another Grand Slam title this year, but the feeling grows that he will perform with more consistency than he did in 2014 and make life uncomfortable for most of his chief rivals. He will make his presence known, and not fleetingly. No one in the games hierarchy can afford to take the still evolving Wawrinka lightly.
<Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.
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